Barcelona Attack: 'The Problem Is Not Immigration,' Says Catalonia's Foreign Minister

Barcelona Attack Memorial
A man holds a Spanish flag with a black ribbon painted on it at an impromptu memorial, a day after a van crashed into pedestrians at Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain August 18, 2017. Susana Vera/Reuters

Immigration and a spirit of "coexistence" between cultures are central to Catalonia's identity, the Spanish region's foreign minister has said in the wake of attacks on Barcelona and a nearby town.

"Catalonia, Barcelona in particular, but Catalonia in general is a place of coexistence. We have had thousands of people coming from different origins. Co-existence has been the norm… that [is] exactly why it is so attractive," Raül Romeva, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the government of Catalonia, tells Newsweek.

"The problem is not the fact that there [are] people of different religions, of different origins, living together," Romeva continues, "The problem is that some people perceive this as a problem. That's what we need to combat. Not the coexistence itself, but the perception that it is a problem."

On Thursday afternoon a white van mowed down pedestrians in the busy tourist district of Las Ramblas in Barcelona, killing 13 and injuring more than 100. Then in the early hours of Friday, a car was driven into a crowd in the seaside resort of Cambrils, critically injuring a woman, who later died, and hurting five others.

Police shot five men dead in the Cambrils attack, while the driver of the white van is still on the run. The Islamic State militant group (ISIS) has claimed responsibility.

Politicians across Europe have responded to a recent spate of attacks by extremists with calls to crack down on mass migration. But Romeva said this is misguided: "The problem is not immigration as such," he said, "The problem is how you control and you combat the networks that radicalise people… that is a global problem."

And Romeva hit back at claims that his region has particularly serious problems with radicalization and extremism.

On Friday, Catalonia's Chief Rabbi Meir Bar-Hen said he had been encouraging his congregants to leave Spain because it is a "hub of terror for all Europe." Fernando Reinares, a Madrid-based terror expert, wrote in the Globe and Mail that Catalonia is "the main jihadist centre of activity in Spain."

But, Romeva insisted, his region is not facing any problems that other places aren't also grappling with. "It's not a particular situation we have [only] in Catalonia," he said, pointing to recent attacks on London and Manchester in the U.K., and Paris in France, carried out by radical islamists living in those countries or nearby.

Asked about the strong influence of Salafist Islam in Catalonia, which contains half of all Spain's Salafist congregation, and its potential to encourage radicalization in the province, Romeva said he didn't want to comment in detail before the motivations of the perpetrators of Thursday's attack had been properly established. "You can make a general approach on this… but on this specific case of Barcelona, I have to be very careful," he said, "let's wait until the investigation is done."

Romeva did say, however, that the response to Islamist terror could not be to demonize Muslims. "We should not not focus on Islam," he said, "we should focus... on radicalism and this needs to be combatted anywhere."

"That is the narrative, I think, that we should be spreading out because otherwise we are making bigger the problems."